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American Born Villan

Aston Villa, From Chicago to the Holte End of the World

Month

August 2013

Choosing Aston Villa (Instead of, Say, a Team That Plays in the Champions League)

I’ll admit it: there was a time, not all that many years ago, when I was scornful of my fellow Americans who wore the shirts of foreign soccer teams. I saw them as pretentious hipsters who, on other days, would be just as likely to wear a T-shirt from a band you’ve never heard of, hoping you will be clueless enough to ask, “Who’s that?” I know you can’t tell someone is American just by looking at him—well, not always—and I know there are plenty of Americans with hereditary ties to certain teams. But how does an otherwise unaffiliated Yank with no particular history just have the balls to pick a team and declare to the world: I am a fan. I follow this team. If you cut me, I will bleed (let’s say, for example) claret and blue.

(For those too impatient to read to the end of this admittedly overlong post, I’ll just say this now: I think I look very comfortable in my 2013-14 Aston Villa home shirt. Even if my wife thinks I look like a dork.)

Vitas Gerulaitis
Vitas Gerulaitis plays from the rough

I grew up not knowing much about team sports, much less being a fan of team sports. I was a child of the 1970s, and my father, an English teacher with curly red hair and wild eyebrows, followed tennis and running. I was a fan, as much as I child could be, of Bjorn Borg and Arthur Ashe. I knew my father despised Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe (and so I did, too, even though I found them fascinating). I knew how to pronounce Vitas Gerulaitis. I was also familiar with the names Sebastian Coe, Frank Shorter, and, later, Alberto Salazar.

This didn’t seem in any way odd to me. I grew up in Montana, a state with no major-league teams, and, at the time, no history of success in college sports. (Times have changed: Go Griz!) I do remember some playground debates as to who played better football, the Vikings, the Steelers, the Raiders, the Dallas Cowboys. And, although I even briefly owned an Oakland Raiders jacket—because I thought the silver and black made me look tough—my credibility as a football fan was undermined by the fact that I had never seen my team play. Football wasn’t watched in my house.

(This reminds me of another playground debate in which, desperate to sound knowledgeable when asked which radio station was the coolest, I named a station based wholly on its call letters: KYSS. After all, KISS was a frightening rock band, right? So wouldn’t KYSS play bad-ass music? Alas, no: “That figures,” sniffed a girl. “I knew you’d like country.” The only radio station heard in my house was KUFM, the local NPR affiliate.)

Years later, as an adult in Chicago, I found myself a neutral observer in many conversations about college sports (how could they possibly have so many colleges and universities east of the Mississippi?), and, naturally, I met a lot of adults who had grown up in places like Pittsburgh, and so had a ready-made slate of teams to support: the Steelers (how nice for them), the Pirates (oh, the pity), and the Penguins (well, they could do worse).

That’s how I had always thought of fandom. Love of a team, if not inherited from your parents, was geographic. And that made sense: if sports are the socially acceptable form of violence, civilized society’s form of battle, then of course we should root for our local teams. Why urge the enemy to attack us? We’re too busy with families, jobs, and bills to go wage actual war on, say, Boston, so we send a delegation of athletes instead. And, because bringing back human trophies is just rude (and where do you put them? does IKEA offer something?), let’s just have Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane and the rest of the guys bring back something shiny.

As a determiner of fandom, geography has its limits, of course. Maybe you just don’t want to root for your crummy local team. And, while allegiance to the local athletic enterprise can offer an illuminating sense of shared purpose—or, conversely, illumination from the light of burning cars torched after an important win or loss—it’s pretty generic. I, by virtue of living in a large city with a popular, well-managed team, have earned the right to feel superior to you, the loser, because you dwell in a smaller city and support a team riven by ego and mismanagement. So maybe choice has its virtues, after all.

But I digress. Again. Sorry, but this whole post is going to be one long digression. Villa isn’t playing a meaningful game this week (you weren’t seriously worried about Rotherham, were you?) so I’m taking the time to work some things out.

Anyway, I moved to Chicago and bought into the whole geographic thing. Delighted that I could step out my back door and ride to Wrigley Field on the 22 bus, I became a Cubs fan. (Somebody should have warned me about that, but there you have it—it’s too late now.) When the North Side of Chicago was happy, I was happy. This didn’t last long. When the North Side of Chicago was unhappy, which is the more usual state of things, and why they anesthetize themselves with beer, I had plenty of people with whom to commiserate.

Hristo Stoitchkov shares a moment with Paul Broome
Hristo Stoitchkov shares a moment with Paul Broome

But then I started playing soccer. My cousin Shane, a player and a fan, moved to Chicago and we decided it would be fun to organize a pickup game. We dubbed it the “Bulgarian Football League,” in honor of the legendary Hristo Stoitchkov, then playing with the Chicago Fire, even though there was nothing Bulgarian about our game whatsoever. In a word, we were soft. But we had fun. And we even managed to get an actual Bulgarian to show up, although I think she felt utterly cheated. She was expecting real Bulgarians.

I loved the game and felt that I would have had an excellent chance at being half decent at it, if only I’d been introduced to it twenty years earlier. I loved playing so much that, like our actual Bulgarian, I felt cheated—out of all those years in which I could have been playing.

But, having played a bit, the game began to make more sense to me as a fan. I had watched several World Cups without understanding much more than which was ahead at any given moment. Now I went to Fire games at Soldier Field, and watched them on TV, and then, gradually, as the games became more available on cable, began to watch European soccer. Mainly the Premier League. Where the game was played at a completely different level than it was in the U.S.

I was hooked.

I watched aimlessly for a couple of seasons, just looking for good games. I developed some favorite players, but I didn’t have a team to root for. I began to envy the fans in the stands, whose ecstasy and anguish was obviously so much more fully felt than my casual interest.

I stopped making fun of the guys who wore their team’s shirt around Chicago. Now I envied them and wished I had a team of my own to support. But how do you just . . . choose? Choosing a team struck me as somehow arrogant, like appropriating history and culture and years of joy and pain and agony just by saying, “I’m in!” How dare I? How dare anyone? Surely you have to earn the right to wear the shirt, but how do you do that? Let’s face it, despite all the amazing scientific advances of recent years, there’s just still no way to fit generations of team spirit into an afternoon.

But surely all these other guys weren’t suffering the same paralysis of overanalysis that I was. Screw it, I decided. I’m picking a team.

To my wife, I rationalized the choice thusly: “If I just choose one team, then I won’t be watching so much soccer every weekend. And I’ll still get to see all the other teams in the league play, anyway.”

Who knows? I might even have believed that first sentence.

So who to choose? How to choose? I instantly ruled out Manchester United, Liverpool, and Chelsea. Choosing one of those sides, I reasoned, would be like deciding to become a baseball fan and picking the New York Yankees. Too obvious. And, moreover, when you choose a club with high expectations and a history of success, what do you root for? Yay, we won the league again! Really, there’s nowhere to go but down. Moreover, how can you feel a part of success that’s already been earned? I had half a notion that I could earn my right to be a fan if I was along for the ride up, or down, and hadn’t come on board at the very top.

Fever Pitch, by Nick HornbyI was interested in Arsenal, for sure. I’d read Nick Hornby’s book, of course, and they played attractive soccer. Moreover, they were a London club, which held some appeal because I lived there briefly after college and thought I might be more likely to visit there than, say, Wigan. But I ruled them out, too. Too big, too successful, and I didn’t want to look like the bespectacled git who chose a team because of some book he read. And, frankly, they seemed too popular around Chicago.

The teams hovering around the relegation zone—your Reading, your Birmingham City, your Hull—I also ruled out. If I couldn’t watch them on TV, what would be the point of following them? I gave every team consideration, but there were many that didn’t produce a flicker of feeling: your Bolton, your Sunderland, your Blackburn. (Well, I almost felt something for Blackburn.)

What I wanted was a middle-of-the-table team with a rich history, an exciting style, and the promise of future success. I wanted to be along for the ride up. A cool name and decent-looking kit would be a bonus. Teams that, at the time, met at least some of those criteria included Tottenham Hotspur (cool name, London club) and West Ham (slightly Gatsbyesque name, London club, nice colors).

Bloody Confused, by Chuck CulpepperI briefly considered Portsmouth, having read about their amazing rise in the great book Bloody Confused, by Chuck Culpepper. So, so, so glad I didn’t climb on that wagon. I had no idea about the finances involved or the utter unlikeliness of their meteoric climb.

I will confess, too, that there was another factor involved. I found myself wanting to support a team that wasn’t well known or widely supported in the U.S. . . . just like the very hipsters I once despised. Knowledge of the obscure makes it easier to own your subject, I guess. I considered teams that historically came second in their cities, like Everton and Manchester City. Everton had Tim Howard, a big plus, and I liked David Moyes. And City were about to buy a bunch of players, including some I cared about, but at the time I didn’t think they had any personality. (Come to think of it, I still don’t, personality being the one thing you can’t buy.) Newcastle crossed my mind and kept right on going. Fulham, a small club, had Brian McBride and Clint Dempsey, and I loved the idea of making a pilgrimage to Craven Cottage.

But none of those teams felt quite right, for reasons I can’t explain.  I’ve since heard it said that you don’t choose your team, they choose you. And so it was. In the end, the answer was right in front of me. There was a massive club in England’s second city, with an enigmatic name and great colors, who were making an assault on the top half of the table under the direction of a fiercely competitive Irishman named Martin O’Neill. I liked their players—Gabby Agbonlahor and John Carew, Ashley Young and Gareth Barry, Stan Petrov and Martin Laursen—and I liked their chances. I liked that they didn’t have buckets of money and so would have to be smart about transfers and player development (though I liked that they weren’t exactly broke, either). Villa would have to punch above their weight if they were to be a top team, but, as one of the few teams not to be relegated from the Premiership, they seemed likely to be in the mix for years to come.

I don’t remember the moment I decided. With something that momentous, it seems as though there should be boozy toasts, or fireworks, or at least a match program and a ticket stub. And, to be honest, it took more than a few seasons before I stopped feeling like a fraud. I still feel like a fraud sometimes, to be honest.

But that doesn’t stop me from losing sleep when Villa are losing. That doesn’t stop me from spending too much time reading about injuries, transfers, and lineups. That doesn’t stop me from enjoying feeling like a part of it all, this team that plays thousands of miles away in a stadium I’ve yet to visit, a team I’ve only seen play in person once (Chicago Fire 0 – Aston Villa 1, headed goal by Agbonlahor at 28′).

My history with the team may be brief, but it’s underway. And it’s mine. And I’m working on my sons—who, at 7 and 9, are both at an age when choosing the New York Yankees seems the perfectly sensible thing to do.

And I think I look pretty good in the shirt.

Keir in Villa shirt
The Villa 2013-14 home kit makes its Montana debut
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Aston Villa 0 – Liverpool 1: I Still Believe

You could argue that this is the game where reality set in. Or, you could argue that we were unlucky not to get five points out of the first three games—a three-game start as difficult as any in the Premier League. I think I’d argue the latter.

Having managed, despite dodgy wifi, to download the app for my newish cable service, I was able to record the 11 a.m. game, and even hide from it, until returning from Minnesota last night at 7 p.m. I was watching by 7:30, and, after enjoying a bright first few minutes, I found myself growing stiller and stiller on the couch. In fact, shortly after Sturridge scored for Liverpool, in the 21st minute, I began curling inward, in what an anthropologist (or possibly a zoologist) would have identified as self-protective body positioning. Really, I just wanted to hide my vital organs in the event that Villa were about to suffer a five-nil rout.

“Seriously? You’re about to score from this angle?”

It really looked possible. They were flat and tentative, giving the Reds enough space to put on a passing clinic. (Can I even call them the Reds, or should I change that to The Visually Disjointed Away Jerseys?) Against my will, I began admiring a Liverpool team that, going into the season, I hadn’t rated very highly. And the crowd were flat, too. Come on, you Holte Enders, do you only sing when you’re winning?

I have to admit, Sturridge’s goal was a beauty. Having gotten around Guzan—how he kept it that extra step, I don’t know—it seemed that he had gone too far to possibly get a shot off. My mistake. Benteke nearly had an answer shortly before the half, but, alas. I could only conclude that the opening schedule was taking its toll. After winning away at Arsenal, and giving a fine, valiant effort away to Chelsea, on the eighth day we really deserved a home game against, say, someone from Wales.

The second half proved to be a mirror opposite of the first. Villa came out with pace and determination, showing some desperately needed creativity. They looked once again like a team I’ll enjoy watching all season, a team capable of playing entertaining and winning soccer. It’s a shame they lost, but I haven’t lost hope. Not at all. If they play this way against sides from the bottom half of the table, I feel confident they’ll finish the season in the top half.

Reasons for Optimism:

The back line. Due to injuries, it can’t have been Lambert’s first-choice lineup (at least this early in the season), but they performed admirably, especially in the face of strong pressure from Liverpool early on.

Benteke. Without much to work with, he created two great chances. He will score a lot of goals for us this season. I think I even saw him play a little defense, too. (I had something caught in my eye, so I might be mistaken; by the time the obstruction had cleared, the moment had passed.)

Okore = OK in my book. Bacuna = Not Bad. And I still like Luna A Lot.

Brad Guzan is a MAN. Did you see the way he leapt to his feet after that collision with Daniel Agger in the 53′ minute? Agger, no shrinking violet himself, needed a moment.

Reasons for Pessimism:

We have now conceded the first goal in all three games.

A silly yellow card from Delph reminded me of his hot-headedness from last season. But I’m willing to forgive it, as he’s shown tremendous growth in every other area, which means I really should have filed him in the category above. But still: an unnecessary yellow card. It bears watching.

Gabby’s shooting. Yes, he “creates havoc” along the flanks. Yes, his speed makes him “virtually unplayable,” et cetera et cetera. And I love him, I really do. But, given a decent chance in front of the goal (around 75′), he sliced it wide of the post. He looks confident in every way except with a ball at his feet in front of the net.

El Ahmady. Maybe this should go under “Reasons for I’m Not Sure What.” But I can’t make up my mind on this guy. What does he give us, exactly? A little pass to open up a yard of space in our own half? I still think longingly back to Michael Bradley’s short trial with Villa—we need a bullet-headed midfield general. We need Stan, of course, but since we can’t have him, we need someone with both grit and vision.

NBC’s time delay on the video. They clearly delay the video by a second or two so the announcers’ calls can be more on top of the action. But, as it stands, they’re calling the miss just as the ball draws level with the crossbar. Any further and it will sound as though they’re predicting the future.

Click here for highlights, and while you’re at it, shake your fist at embeds that require iframes. Then chuckle at the video description, which reads: “For the second straight game, Liverpool found themselves in a 1-0 deficit. Would they be able to complete a second straight comeback, or would Aston Villa defend their home turf?”

North American Villans 1 – Globe Pub 4: We Were Old and Slow—Somehow, We Still Managed to Lose

North American Villans 2013
North American Villans 2013

Friday, August 16, 2013, after work

My usual Friday routine, since becoming a father, involves opening a beer, ordering pizza, and joining my wife and kids in front of the TV for a movie that, likely as not, will be an animated tie-in to some relentlessly merchandised product line.

This Friday is different. My kids are in Minnesota with my in-laws, my wife is getting her hair cut, and I am pulling on a brand-new Aston Villa home shirt. After getting my boots and shin guards out of the storage locker, I fill a duffel bag with essentials (spare shirt, water bottle, granola bars, phone, wallet, and keys) and cross Lake Shore Drive to a nearby soccer field. There I plan to play for Aston Villa—well, their North American supporters, who have descended on Chicago to mark the start of the 2013-14 season.

A month ago, I was unaware that the Chicago Villans even existed. Clued in by my friend Andrew Grant, an author and Birmingham-born Villan, I have been invited to the festivities and I am determined to meet some other fans—and also determined to play.

So you know: I am not what is known in soccer circles as a “good player.” I play a little pickup from time to time, and I coach little kids. I have never played eleven-a-side on a full-size pitch. Worse, I am probably not a very good Villa fan. I have followed Villa closely for half a dozen years and, while that’s a long time by some standards, to a dedicated sports fan it’s a mere blink of an eye.

I arrive at the field, which is allegedly turf but looks like outdoor carpeting laid over a parking lot. I can’t miss the claret-and-blue-clad players in various states of disarray along the touchline, though. Some are young, some are old, some are thin and some are stout, their accents ranging from Midwest to Midlands. Most of them look as though they’ve come to play, although one of them is having a hard time standing up.

“Where’s the manager?” I ask.

“I don’t know, it’s not my job,” says the nearest Villan with what sounds like relief. (I later learn his name is Tyler.)

I put on my boots and then make a little small talk with a middle-aged gent whose son is playing. A Brummie with no shortage of bonhomie, he lives in Arizona now and has made the trip as part of a father-son weekend.

With some hesitation, I make my way onto the pitch. I assume that most of the players will have grown up with a ball at their feet, unlike me, and I am wary of being found out. If they see me play, will I be sent to the dressing room before the game kicks off? Given that there is no dressing room, maybe they’ll just make me watch from the top of the nearby hill.

But the warmups are lackluster. The various Villans stand around the top of the penalty area, taking odd shots at a shaven-headed keeper who looks as though he could be Littlest Brad. (Bald Americans Brad Friedel, or Big Brad, and Brad Guzan, Little Brad, have made most of the starts between the sticks for Aston Villa since 2008.) His name is actually Simon, or Other Simon (for reasons that will soon become clear), and he seems to be quite good. Unfortunately, our strikers are not. As we take turns kicking balls straight at the keeper or high over the crossbar, some of the players begin casting worried glances at our competition from the Globe Pub. They’re all . . . skinny. And young. There aren’t very many of them, though. The consensus is that, if we can field a starting eleven, or fifteen, against five or six of them, we might have a chance.

Meanwhile, Peeves, a Villan with the size, grace, and speed of the Queen Mary (if she were fueled with pints of beer), takes a meandering dribble through a practicing squad of young players. The kids’ coach ignores him, though a casual hip-check against a pint-sized player can’t have gone unnoticed. We begin shouting at him to come back; eventually, he has to be called off by Littlest Brad/Other Simon.

Eventually, Simon Leach (YES: Simon Leach!) arrives, our godfather, gaffer, and the president of the North American Aston Villa Supporters. He gets us organized and soon the game is underway. I fail to raise my hand when Simon asks for starters, as I want to take still more stock of the competition before I go in.

The Globe players really do look suspiciously younger and more fit. We clearly have a few players who know the game—and some of them don’t even have beer guts yet—but I fear this will be a preview of Villa’s first game vs. Arsenal.

God, I hope not.

“One of their players is the brother of [Chicago Fire defender] Jalil Anibaba,” someone tells me.

Oh great, a ringer.

I wait until, partway through the first half, Simon the Gaffer runs off. I run on and he tells me to play “up front.” I am not a striker. I fancy myself more in the Michael Bradley mold, a Xavi or a Bastian Schweinsteiger on my better days, spraying passes from the midfield. Still, I’ve spent a lot of time studying world-class strikers from the comfort of my couch.

I stay onside, with one embarrassing exception. I try to run off the shoulders of the defenders. I get some good balls, squander most of them, although one of my errant crosses is on target and so I should be credited with a shot on goal.

A shot easily gathered by the Globe’s diminutive but capable keeper.

Did I mention that I usually play with kids?

Peeves comes on. I have no idea what position he’s playing, and I don’t think he does, either. He commits a horrific, slow-motion tackle on a slender young barmaid from the Globe team, is red-carded by players from both sides, and literally rolled off the pitch. Simon’s job is not easy.

Simon Rolls Peeves Off the Pitch
Usually, Red-Carded Players Leave the Pitch On Their Own Two Legs

After a dozen sprints, my thighs are burning and I am gasping for air. My sprightly thirties are but a distant memory. I sub out. Chug water. The field is big. I am tired.

We go down by one goal, then another. And still another. By halftime, it’s 3-0. Simon gives us a team talk but, frankly, I can’t remember the substance. I’m still chewing granola and chugging water. I think he might have reminded us to have fun.

In the second half, I sub back in. “Left back!” shouts Simon.

I have never played proper defense in my life. I pay close attention to the commands of our vociferous center back, who seems to know what he’s talking about. Still, we keep losing our shape, so I mostly try to frustrate Jammil Anibaba. (“Watch the ringer!” shouts our center back.) I foil a few crosses and make a decent pass from the back (to a forward woefully offside); I totally screw up and Littlest Brad makes a nice fingertip save to exonerate me.

It’s still 3-0. Who are we playing, Manchester United?

I sub out and North American Villa scores! Thanks some nice passing and a well-taken shot by some guy whose name I can’t remember. The Villans on the sideline vow this is the start of our comeback. Not one of them believes it.

I sub in again, this time as a left midfielder. The Globe’s players are young, fast, and far more physical than the 7- and 9-year-olds I’m used to playing with. And, though I have the slightest foreboding that I might be about to vomit, I’m having a blast. I haven’t covered myself in glory, but I haven’t embarrassed myself—at least, not too badly—and, best of all, I played in claret and blue.

The game ends 4-1. After handshakes all around, we board a bus for the short trip to the Globe. No sooner has it started moving than it comes to a screeching halt. Where is Peeves?

A search is made, the search is abandoned, and the biggest Villan of them all is located just where we’d expect to find him: back at the pub.

How he made it there, god only knows.

North American Villans and the Globe Publicans
North American Villans and the Globe Publicans

Update: The identity of the North American Villans’ goalscorer is now known: Bob Kemp, displaying the pace of an Agbonlahor, the power of a Benteke, and the  surprised celebration style of a Matt Lowton, confidently slotted home to deny FC Globe the clean sheet they so badly craved.

Also, the author of this post was remiss in not acknowledging the astonishing goal-line clearance performed by stalwart defender Todd Butler. His backline heroics surely kept the game from becoming a rout.

Chelsea 2 – Aston Villa 1: A Score I Can’t Hide From

A midweek, afternoon game and I find myself in Minnesota, a bit north of St. Paul at the home of my in-laws. They don’t have cable, and it seems too antisocial to borrow a car and drive into the cities for Brit’s Pub. (The decision not to go to Brit’s Pub, by the way, is purely situational. If it were the end of the season, rather than the second game, or if it was a cup game, or a game I felt more confident about winning, I might prove to be a less socially minded guest.)

But, after looking up the lineups on ESPNFC and watching the buildup on Twitter, I suddenly decide it’s time to go running.

While I’m running, of course, I think of nothing except soccer.

Being a fan of a team that plays far away creates all sorts of conundrums. The home-team fan, if he is a season ticket holder, can attend most or all of the home games, splash out on a select few away fixtures, and feel no guilt about watching the rest on TV. Even if the rest are not available on TV, reading the results afterward can’t be too agonizing; after all, he is there for most of the games.

Being a fan of a team that plays approximately 4,000 miles away is a different matter entirely. All of my watching is mediated. At best, I can watch the games live on TV. Often, owing to job, family, the various volunteering in which I’ve managed to ensnare myself, I can’t, so I record the games. (With an early morning flight from Chicago to the Twin Cities, I didn’t even remember to set the DVR, and, at any rate, I won’t be back until Saturday.) When that isn’t possible, I’ve followed the as-it-happens live blogging on the Guardian, or the live stream on the Villa site.)

The worst of the worst is following a game on Twitter, waiting interminable minutes for a tweet telling you that Karim el-Ahmady has scuffed a shot just wide of the post.

So I’m running, figuring I’ll return around halftime, sparing myself at least forty-five minutes of staring at my phone, refreshing the stream, and pretending to listen to the conversation going on around me. I’d really rather be back in Chicago, hiding from the score with Simon Leach, knowing I’d be able to watch the replay at the Globe Pub with Simon and whichever other odd supporters turn up. (Praying that some Arsenal fan, still chafing from last week’s humiliation at the emirates, won’t snidely tell us the final score just after kickoff.)

“Hiding from the game”—what a uniquely modern phenomenon. When did it start? Probably a week after the first programmable VCR went on sale.

One of the reasons I love sports, soccer in particular, is that I don’t know how they will end. As a novelist, and someone who has reviewed approximately six hundred books, I have a keenly developed sense of how most fictional scenarios will unfold, and, much as I love reading, I often turn to sports for real drama. (Sometimes real characters, too.) Watching a live game, a game that counts, can be exquisite agony. And so, to preserve that feeling of agony, we suddenly start avoiding the streams of information in which we normally swim, pleading with fellow fans not to share the score, not to call, text or email us. We trot down airport terminals without glancing right or left. If we see someone wearing a particular shirt, we immediately turn around, not wanting to see whether their expression is one of triumph or despair.

It’s not easy. Sometimes my father will text me an innocuous, “Are you watching?” and I find myself scrutinizing those three words for deeper meaning. Is he asking whether I’m watching because he’s not watching, or because he is? Is it a real cracker of a game that I should be watching, but, out of respect for my fragile mental state, he’s trying to preserve a deadpan tone? Does the deadpan tone hide amazement at a high-scoring victory-in-progress sure to lift me to exultation? Or, you know, the other thing. Probably that.

Having successfully hidden from a score, with the kids in bed and the wife resignedly opening a book, the fan (e.g., me), opens a beer, maybe pops some popcorn, and settles in to watch. When at home, you would think this was mission accomplished: after all, there is nothing and no one that can ruin the carefully preserved illusion of real-time game-time agony. Right?

Wrong. Now there is a whole new level of agony. Because the fan (for the sake of argument, again, let’s say it’s me) knows he still holds the result in the palm of his hand, in the form of a much-more-complicated-than-necessary remote control. At any point, he (I) can fast forward to the next goal, to the half, to the very end of the game. Needless to say, this requires extraordinary self-control. In many cases, this power, the knowledge that you could know, adds an intensifier to an already heady brew, like a shot of whiskey dropped into a pint of beer (not that I have ever tried that, but, you know, I’ve heard of it).

Sometimes I don’t possess that much self-control. Sometimes I just can’t stand it. Sometimes we’re losing and I tell myself that I don’t want to waste that much time and emotion on another disheartening loss. But they could come back, I argue, and isn’t the unknowing what I’ve worked so hard to preserve? I fast-forward five minutes, disgusted, then debate myself all over again. If I do fast-forward, and Villa do make a late comeback, then I haven’t put in the emotional effort as a fan to deserve the celebrations, right?

But they probably won’t come back.

But what if they do?

It’s pathetic, really, but one of those fascinating conundrums produced by technology that allows us to know everything that’s happening everywhere at any time (except, perhaps, what truly lies in the hearts of our elected leaders)—so we manufacture a situation that allows us to recreate the emotional investment of a simpler time, when things simply played out in real time and you were there and you saw it or you weren’t and you didn’t.

Being a soccer fan, being a sports fan, is a lot harder than anyone gives us credit for.

So, as I say, I was hiding from the game in a different way. I took a very slow run in very high humidity along Pleasant Lake, turning around when I reached the former grave site of railroad tycoon James J. Hill and his wife, Mary. When I returned, the game was in progress, and, by virtue of refreshing my smartphone and being conversationally somewhat absent, I was able to learn that Antonio Luna, who we loved on Saturday, gave away an own goal early on. That Benteke equalized. (Come on, Chelsea, you planning to score anytime or are you going to let Villa do all the work?) That we may have had a shout for a red card on Ivanovic. And then, naturally, he gets the winning goal for his side. Oh, and we may have a had a case for handball against Terry at the death.

I haven’t watched any of the video yet as I write this, and so this take on the game was filtered through the folks I follow on Twitter, none of them true-blue Chelsea supporters. (In my defense, some of them are actual sports journalists like Henry Winter.)

So it seems a hard loss, and yet, a week ago, would we have dreamed that we had a respectable chance to take six points from the first two games? I’m sure some of us were just hoping to get through the games without being found out, then hoping for a point at home against Liverpool. (Not me, you understand; I’m just saying.)

So three points against Arsenal away, a strong showing against Chelsea away (can’t wait to hear what the Special Happy Chosen One has to say about us; I’m sure he won’t agree), and I wouldn’t be surprised at all if we can pick up three points against a Liverpool attack that will surely lack its usual bite. (Sorry, I meant to say that the Reds’ offense would be toothless.) And David Moyes was complaining about his opening schedule? Crybaby.

Arsenal 1 – Aston Villa 3: Top of the League for a Moment

There’s that moment, before the start of the first game of the season, when, despite your accumulated knowledge of the way the league works; despite the disparity in spending between the clubs at the top, middle, and bottom of the table; despite the cynicism that comes from a near-miss with relegation the previous season, you entertain the wild fantasy that THIS WILL BE THE YEAR. This will be the year when promising young talent, crafty veterans, and the players you’ve never heard of until your wily manager bought them from some Bulgarian team will make an unprecedented push for a place in Europe—and no, not that second league they might do away with someday, but the Champions League. Glory!

And then there is the sixth minute of the game, when horrific defending gives the home team an early goal.

That is the moment when you have a premonition that this year will really not be that much different from last year. That the young defenders have learned nothing. That your investment in your team will be eclipsed by your investment in alcohol and antacid.

Fortunately, Gabby Gabby Gabby Gabby Gabby Agbonlahor is really as fast as they say (which is to say: fuck), and Christian Benteke has the presence of mind to nod home the rebound of his blocked penalty shot, and then it’s GAME ON. All that optimism of seven minutes ago comes roaring back.

We did benefit from some generally haphazard officiating. The penalty against Szczesny was correct (why was he not sent off?), though the yellows against Koscielny seemed harsh. But controversial calls can’t be blamed for losing by two goals, and in the end it was the Villans who showed more composure than the big North London club.

Although I won’t say that I was composed: with a 2-1 lead and the other side reduced to 10 men, I turned to my friend Andrew and said, “Why do I feel like it’s squeaky-bum time?” He nodded in agreement: we were both too well aware of how many points Villa gave away from winning positions over the last couple of seasons.

But this year, apparently, will be different. This year found new signing Antonio Luna streaking forward to slot home the insurance goal. We have a left back who is willing to put himself front and center? Amazing.

“Play wherever you like, Tony!”

For a moment, anyway, Aston Villa had both the leading scorer in the Barclays Premier League (Benteke) and, by virtue of goal difference, was top of the table. (As opposed to earlier in the day when we were top of the table by virtue of alphabetization.)

The Globe Pub, where I was happily surrounded by a visiting contingent of North American Villa supporters, erupted in song. A small table of Manchester United fans, no doubt surprised to find themselves in the minority, had a hard time enjoying their win over Swansea, due to repeated refrains of “We’re Top of the Table” and “Who the Fuck Are Man United?”

Well, they’re top of the table now, but we enjoyed our moment there. (And, until Man City hammers Newcastle 4-0, we’re still second.) It’s going to be a good season.

Reasons for Optimism:

Villa came from behind, got a lead, and not only held it, built upon it. Away to Arsenal, no less.

We look fast and dangerous on the counterattack. Benteke, Gabby, and Weiman are going to cause other teams a lot of problems.

Delph didn’t get a yellow card. Not only that, when he gave the ball away, he didn’t instantly hack the player who’d taken it from him. Signs of new maturity?

Brad Guzan.

Reasons for Pessimism:

Porous defending that allowed Giroud’s early goal; a defensive miscue that nearly resulted in a goal-line giveaway shortly thereafter.

Well, at least Nathan Baker didn’t suffer a head injury. But the back line’s most battered player spent more time down on the turf and had to be substituted early.

Last season. As I said, it’s a new year, but I don’t want to get carried away. We will suffer some more hard defeats and make more mistakes. And, with a mid-week game away to Chelsea, it will be a challenging start to the season. That said, before kickoff on Saturday morning I would have been thrilled if you’d told me we could take four points from the first three games. We’ve got three already, and the fantasist in me is dreaming of nine.

Well, seven anyway.

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